The most written about Shakespearean tragedy


Hamlet is the great Shakespearean tragedy most frequently mentioned in books. Check the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any word or short sentence found in print since the year 1800. And you will find Hamlet mentioned more often than the other great Shakespearean tragedies.

I thought Macbeth comes close. But, no, Hamlet is more frequently mentioned by far. Macbeth is a distant runner-up followed by Othello. King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, the other two great Shakespearean tragedies, are mentioned less frequently than Romeo and Juliet.

Predictably, Shakespeare is on Twitter today, it being April 23, believed to be his birthday and also the day he died.

Shakespeare is losing ground, though. The tragedies are cited and quoted less often than before. The late 1940s and early ’50s were the golden age of Shakespeare when references to the tragedies peaked in books. That was the era of scholars like AL Rowse and Dover Wilson and actors like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

One reason the Shakespearean tragedies are mentioned less often in books now may be the growing diversity of the publishing industry. There are more books on other subjects that have little or no reason to cite Shakespeare. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows fewer references to Shakespeare himself today than in the early 1900s and the 1950s. Those were the years when he was cited most often. AC Bradley’s seminal Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1904.

Words of Shakespeare

Shakespeare may be losing ground, but it is like the depletion of the rainforests. Just as we cannot imagine a world without rainforests, English won’t be English without Shakespeare. His words have become part of our everyday language. Quotations from his plays and poems pop up everywhere, from books to newspaper articles. These lines from Hamlet, for example, have become ubiquitous:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”.(Act III, Scene I).

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”(Act I, Scene III).

“…to thine own self be true”. (Act I, Scene III).

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”. (Act II, Scene II).

“That it should come to this!”. (Act I, Scene II).

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. (Act II, Scene II).

“What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! “.(Act II, Scene II).

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. – (Act III, Scene II).

“In my mind’s eye”. (Act I, Scene II).

“Brevity is the soul of wit”. – (Act II, Scene II).

“I will speak daggers to her, but use none”. – (Act III, Scene II).

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”. (Act IV, Scene V)

The 1989 second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary had 33,300 quotations from Shakespeare. The viral nature of the World Wide Web means these quotations have been repeated many times over online. A Google search for Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy turned up 23,300,000 results in 40 seconds.

Many of the words we use were first found in Shakespeare. Here are some of the words earliest encountered in Shakespeare by the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary. You will find these and more Bard words on enotes. Also check the website Shakespeare’s Words by David and Ben Crystal.

Words first found in Shakespeare?    
abstemious academe     accessible
accommodation addiction (Shakespeare meant “tendency”)     admirable
aerial (Shakespeare meant “of the air”) airless     amazement
arch-villain assassination     auspicious
barefaced baseless     bedazzle
belongings birthplace     blood-stained
blusterer bold-faced     braggartism
bubble bump (as a noun)     candle holder
cater (as in “to bring food”) cat-like     characterless
cheap (in pejorative sense of “vulgar”) chimney-top     churchlike
circumstantial clutch     cold-blooded
cold-hearted colourful     compact (as noun “agreement”)
to comply to compromise (Shakespeare meant “to agree”)     consanguineous
(related by bloood)
control (noun) countless     courtship
critical cruel-hearted     to cudgel
Dalmatian to dapple     dauntless
dawn (as a noun) day’s work     death’s head
defeat (as a noun) depositary (as “trustee”)     dewdrop
dexterously (Shakespeare spelt it “dexteriously”) disgraceful     to dishearten
to dislocate distasteful (meant “to show disgust”     distrustful
dog-weary domineering     downstairs
drollery droplet     duteous
East Indies to educate     to elbow
embrace (as a noun) employer     employment
enfranchisement engagement     to enmesh
enrapt to enthrone     epileptic
equivocal eventful     excitement (Shakespeare meant “incitement”)
expedience expertness     exposure
eyeball eyedrop (Shakespeare meant a “tear”)     eyewink
face (Shakespeare meant “dial of a clock”) fair-faced     fairyland
fanged farmhouse     far-off
fashionable fashionmonger     fathomless (Shakespeare meant “too huge to be encircled by one’s arms”)
fat-witted featureless (Shakespeare meant “ugly”)     fiendlike
fitful fixture (Shakespeare meant “fixing” or setting firmly in place”)     fleer (as a noun, “sneer”)
flowery (“full of florid expressions”) fly-bitten     footfall 
foppish foregone     fortune-teller
foul-mouthed Franciscan     freezing (as an adjective)
fetful frugal     full-grown
full-hearted  futurity     gallantry (Shakespeare meant “gallant people’
garden house generous (Shakespeare meant “gentle”, “noble”     gentlefolk
glow (as a noun) go-between     grass plot
green-eyed grey-eyed     grief-shot (as “sorrow-stricken”)
grime (as a noun) to grovel     gust (as a “wind blast”)
half-blooded heartsore     hell-born
to hinge hint (as a noun)     hobnail (as a noun)
homely (in the sense of “ugly”) honey-tongued     hostile
hot-blooded howl (as a noun)     hunchbacked
idle-headed ill-tempered     ill-used
impartial import (the noun “importance” or “significance”)     inaudible
inauspicious incarnadine     indirection
indistinguishable inducement     informal (meant “unformed” or “irresolute”)
to inlay investment (Shakespeare meant “a piece of      invitation
invulnerable jaded (Shakespeare seems to have meant “contemptible:)     lacklustre
ladybird lament     laughable
leaky leapfrog     lonely (Shakespeare meant “lone”)
long-legged love letter     lustrous
madcap (as an adjective) madwoman     majestic
malignancy (Shakespeare meant “malign tendency”) manager     marketable
marriage bed mewling (“whining”, “whimpering”)     mimic (the noun)
misgiving (Shakespeare meant “uneasiness”) money’s worth     monumental
moonbeam mortifying      motionless
multitudinous mutineer     neglect
newsmonger nimble-footed     noiseless
obscene (Shakespeare meant “revolting”) on purpose     outbreak
overblown overview (as a noun: Shakespeare meant “supervision”)     pageantry
pale-faced paternal     pedant (Shakespeare was referring to a “schoolmaster”)
pedantical pendulous (Shakespeare meant “hanging over”)     perusal
pious priceless     profitless
Promethean protester (Shakespeare meant “one who affirms”)     puppy dog
quarrelsome radiance     reclusive
refractory reliance     remorseless
reprieve (the noun) retirement     roadway
roguery rose-cheeked     rumination
ruttish satisfying (as an adjective)     savage (as “uncivilized”)
scuffle seamy     self-abuse (Shakespeare meant “self-deception”)
shipwrecked shooting star     shudder (the noun)
silk stocking soft-hearted     spectacled
sportive stealthy     still-born
successful suffocating (the adjective)     tardiness
time-honoured traditional     tranquil
transcendence trippingly     unaccommodated
unappeased unchanging     unclaimed
uncomfortable (in the sense “disquieting”) unearthly     uneducated
unfrequented ungoverned     ungrown
unhelpful unhidden     unlicensed
unmitigated unmusical     unpolluted
unpremediated unpublished (Shakespeare meant “undisclosed”)     unquestionable
unquestioned unreal     unrivalled
unscarred unscratched     unsolicited
unsolicited unswayed     untutored
unvarnished unwillingness     upstairs
useful useless     valueless
varied (as an adjective) vulnerable     watchdog
water drop well-behaved     well-educated
well-read yelping (as an adjective)      

By Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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